Katie Sell, Maria Newton, Lynda Ransdell. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 2, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

The word tennis is thought to have evolved from the Greek word phennis or the German word tanz. Others have speculated that the word evolved from the French word tenez meaning “to play.” However the name came to be, the sport has evolved from a game enjoyed only by the upper classes to one that is played and watched by people of every social strata.


The origins of tennis are much debated. The earliest reports date back to ancient Greece. Information from the fourth century CE specifies that the Persians enjoyed a game called tchigan that was played in an enclosed space with rackets that were approximately four feet long. Despite these records of early games that were similar to tennis, most historians feel that tennis originated in thirteenth-century France. The game, known as jeu de paume (or game of the palm) evolved from handball. Balls made of cloth sewn into a hard round shape were hit with a bare hand or a hand in a glove. Nets were made of wooden obstacles or mounds of dirt, and participants volleyed against a wall or with each other. The scoring system probably originated from the Old French word une journee meaning a “sport match” or “a day.” The word love, meaning “no points,” is thought to come from the French word for egg, l’oeuf, which sounds like “love.”

Growth of the Sport Worldwide

In 1873 Major Walter Clapton Wingfield, a British Army officer, in an effort to liven up a lawn party invented lawn tennis, a combination of badminton and court tennis that was played on an hourglass-shaped court. Major Wingfield patented the game in 1874 and sold equipment for the sport. Tennis balls were made of uncovered hollow rubber, and the net was 4 feet high in the center and 5 feet at the posts. Rackets were spoon shaped with long handles. In 1877 when Wingfield’s patent ran out, the game was further modified: the hourglass shape of the court was changed to a rectangle.

Most historians speculate that the game of tennis was brought to America by Mary Ewing Outerbridge of New York. Outerbridge, nicknamed the “mother of tennis,” learned the game from British officers while visiting her brother stationed at a British garrison in Bermuda. Consequently, she brought the equipment back to America. By late 1874 she had helped establish the first lawn court on American soil, in Staten Island, New York. Initially, the sport grew mostly in the eastern United States—especially at the women’s colleges in the region. The game was introduced at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1881. In 1892 Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania held the first intercollegiate tennis contest, an event that may have been the first intercollegiate contest for women in any sport.

After the 1920s the game was no longer assumed to be restricted to those from the upper class. Tennis is now played among all social classes, having moved “from the classes to the masses—from an informal lawn party to a lavish spectator show” (Bartlett and Gillen 1981, 11). Much of the increased participation in tennis was due to the availability of public tennis courts.

Worldwide Participation

Tennis was one of the first sports to be enjoyed by women. The leisurely and social nature of the game appealed to the “less athletically inclined” female. Despite the growth of women’s participation in tennis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men still had more competition opportunities than women. For example, in 1884 England started the “All England Lawn Tennis Club” women’s singles championships—now known as Wimbledon—seven years after the start of the same event for men. Perhaps more profoundly for the women, the early success of female tennis players and the growth of the sport among virtually all social classes paved the way for women to play other sports, such as basketball and field hockey.

International tennis competition for men started with the Davis Cup in 1900 and for the women with the Wightman Cup in 1923 (only the United States and England participated). The Wightman Cup was discontinued near the end of the 1980s in favor of the more popular Federation Cup—initiated in 1963 as an equivalent to the men’s Davis Cup. Tennis was first added as an Olympic event in 1900. Then, in 1924 the sport was eliminated because of disputes over the distinction between amateur and professional athletes. Finally, at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, tennis returned as an Olympic sport. With the beginning of the “open era” of tennis in the late 1960s (a limited number of tournaments were opened to amateur and professional players), the Olympics became a showcase for many of the top professional players. Presently, television ratings for tennis are high, and tournament attendance records are broken regularly. Tennis is recognized as a multimillion dollar sport. This revenue has been generated from corporate support, player endorsements, and tournament proceedings. Mercedes-Benz’s current multiyear deal with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) is worth close to $50 million. Sanex’s sponsorship, although terminated in 2002, generated over $40 million in sports revenue for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). IBM and Rolex corporations alone have multimillion sponsorship deals with the Grand Slam tournament Wimbledon (amounting to nearly $14 million each year). With $52 million at stake at the sixty tournaments worldwide on the women’s professional circuit, it is not surprising that Venus Williams was the highest paid female athlete in 2001-2002 along with her tournament winnings, having signed $20 million in endorsement contracts with companies including Reebok and Wrigley.

The popularity of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Veterans Circuit is also growing. It currently offers 186 tournaments worldwide, with players over thirty-five eligible to compete in a variety of age-category events. Tennis remains, however, the most visible sport in which men and women of different nationalities, ethnicities, and backgrounds can compete, succeed, and dominate the center stage.

Rules, Equipment, and Training: Recent Changes

Since the open era of tennis began in the late 1960s, notable changes have occurred in areas such as scoring, pre- and postmatch mandatory interviews, establishment of the Code of Conduct (1975), and match protocol. The most recent additions include player hindrance guidelines, particularly regarding excessive player “grunting” during play; removal of the rest break after the first game of every set; and the use of the tiebreaker. (A full description of the current rules and regulations for professional conduct and play can be found at www. With regards to training and coaching, the most recognized professional coaching certifications are generally obtained through the national governing body for tennis in each respective country. (Many resources exist concerning tennis-related and tennis-specific training practices and programs, such as www. and

The changes in scoring and protocol concurrent with the onset of the open era of tennis have been accompanied by changes in racket technology and the quality and type of clothing (especially for females). Rackets are now made of titanium, graphite, or hypercarbon (or a combination of these materials), as opposed to wood (the predominant racket type until the 1970s) or aluminum. The price of a racket can vary significantly depending on the quality and manufacturer. Player clothing has also been transformed to provide greater comfort for the players (e.g., quicker sweating capacity, ease of movement) and provide more commercial appeal. Consequently, player clothing today consists of many bright and unconventional colors and styles. Few individuals now wear traditional “all white” outfits—except at Wimbledon where it is mandatory.

Recently, there have been calls for more drastic rule changes to make the game more viewer friendly and to reduce the dominance of the serve (especially in the men’s game). Suggested changes include the “no let” rule (if the serve hits the net and falls in, it counts), no second serves, no ad-scoring, reducing the size of the service box, use of wooden rackets, and on-court coaching. These alterations have gained support from prominent individuals in the tennis world, such as John McEnroe and Stan Smith (associate director of the USTA Player Development Program, 1988-1995).

Important People

The history of tennis contains many memorable personalities, notable players, and ambassadors for the sport. A brief summery of these men and women follows.

The first gentlemen characters in tennis were two sets of British brothers, Ernie and William Renshaw, followed by the Doherty boys, Reggie and Laurence, who won numerous Wimbledon Singles and Doubles titles during the 1880s through the early 1900s. In 1938 American Don Budge became the first male to achieve the “Grand Slam,” which consists of winning all four major Grand Slam events in the same calendar year. In 1962 and 1969, Australian Rod Laver became the second man to achieve this feat (twice nonetheless). In 1968 Arthur Ashe became the first African-American to play on the U.S. Davis Cup team and the first to win a major singles title, the U.S. Open, the first of his three (Australian Open, 1970; Wimbledon, 1975, being the others). In doing so he established a legacy that remains today. Swedish player Björn Borg won an unprecedented fifth consecutive Wimbledon Singles title in 1980 (he would win a total of twelve Grand Slam majors by 1981). In the 1970s and 1980s, the fiery tempers of players such as John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase, and Jimmy Connors, often directed at their opponents, umpires, and even the crowd, were more than matched by their genius as players. McEnroe won seventeen major titles (singles and doubles), and Connors, as well as winning eight major singles titles, is the only male to win the U.S. Open on three different surfaces. The playing careers of Fred Perry (Great Britain), Guillermo Vilas (Argentina), Stefan Edberg (Sweden), Boris Becker (Germany), Mats Wilander (Sweden), and Ivan Lendl (Czechoslovakian, American after 1992) also have honorable places in tennis history, having captured between four and eight Grand Slam titles each. Pete Sampras, an American, holds the record for men’s Grand Slam singles titles at fourteen, having been ranked number one for most of the 1990s. Today’s game is blessed with a wide variety of personalities and playing styles, from the composed persona of Roger Federer to the charismatic play and experience of Andre Agassi and the fiery passion of Lleyton Hewitt.

In the 1920s, Mary Kendell Browne, an American, became one of the first female professional tennis players, along with the glamorous Frenchwomen, Suzanne Lenglen. In 1950 Althea Gibson became the first African-American woman to participate in the U.S. Championships, which she later became the first African-American to win in 1957 (having won Wimbledon in 1956). In the 1970s Evonne Goolagong Cawley became the first and only Aborigine (Native Australian) to win a Grand Slam event (two Wimbledon titles, one French, and four Australian Open Championships). In 1953 Maureen Catherine Connolly became the first female to achieve the Grand Slam. This feat has been equaled by only two other women: Margaret Court Smith in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988. Graf won twenty-two Grand Slam titles in a highly successful career that finished with a sentimental French Open Singles victory in 1998. Martina Navratilova, who won a record high of 170 singles and 129 doubles titles, recently equaled Billie Jean King’s record of twenty Wimbledon tournament wins, with a victory in the 2003 Mixed Doubles event at Wimbledon alongside partner Leander Paes. Despite retiring in 1995, Navratilova has recently been active on the tour once again at the age of forty-seven, competing in the singles and doubles events at the 2004 French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, and the 2004 Olympics, but is now contemplating retirement for the second time.

It is largely agreed that Helen Wills and Suzanne Lenglen were considered the greatest female players of all time for over fifty years, Pauline May Betz Addie was possibly the best post-World War II player, and Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf were possibly the greatest female players of the open era. Women’s tennis has also seen a variety of successful playing styles. Strength and power were demonstrated in the game of Alice Mable, Suzanne Lenglen, and Helen Wills in the 1920s and 1930s; Eleonara Sears and May Sutton Bundy in the early 1900s; Margaret Court Smith in the 1960s and 1970s; and Martina Navratilova from the 1970s to present. Finesse accompanied by dominating ground-stroke games were demonstrated by Maureen Connolly in the 1950s and Evonne Cawley and Chris Evert in the 1970s and 1980s. Presently, a diversity of playing styles and strokes is evident in the women’s game. This has undoubtedly contributed to the immense popularity of the women’s tour.

Significant Events

The emergence of open tennis, the “Battle of the Sexes,” and the development of a women’s professional league, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) are arguably the most important events in tennis history.

In response to growing concern that the most popular tennis players of the era would continue to join players already turned professional (e.g., Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Cliff Drysdale, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewell), the International Tennis Federation (ITF) approved twelve tournaments (including Wimbledon) for both amateur and professional players in 1968, signaling the beginning of the open era of tennis.

The women’s liberation movement and other social justice movements of the early 1970s prompted female tennis players to rectify the significant gender differences in prize money, travel allowances, and sponsorship. As a result of the 1970 Pacific Southwest Tournament organizers refusal to equalize the disparity in prize money (the men’s singles champion was set to receive $12,500 compared to the women’s champion receiving only $1,500), a women-only tournament was established in Houston, Texas. The prize money was set at $5,000, plus $2,500 in additional monies (pledged by Joe Cullman of Philip Morris tobacco) for the winner of the tournament in exchange for naming it the “Virginia Slims Tournament.” Led by tennis entrepreneur Gladys Heldman, nine women (two Australians—Kerr Melville and Judy Dalton—and seven Americans—Peaches Bartkowicz,Val Ziegenfuss, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, and Julie Heldman) agreed to play despite threats of suspension from the USLTA. By 1971 Billie Jean King became the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a year. Overall, the Virginia Slims tour was developed, worth $250,000, and twenty-four tournaments were planned for the near future (as opposed to only two tournaments that were guaranteed following Houston). Billie Jean King continued to act as a prominent advocate of women’s tennis and promote equality for women in sport by defeating Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes.” The match, which was worth $100,000 (plus bonuses and endorsements) to the winner, was watched by 30,472 people in the Houston Astrodome and over 50 million on television. Billie Jean King has since occupied major roles as the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and coach of the U.S. Federation Cup Team. Although immense progress has been made, inequality still exists within professional tennis. Only seventeen female players have earned more than $300,000, compared with fifty professional male players. Furthermore, only the Australian and U.S. Open tournaments (both Grand Slam competitions) award equal prize money to males and females.

In 1972 the ATP, a male players’ union, was formed. The ATP has been instrumental in governing prize money, tournament conditions, conduct, and organization of tournaments (except the Grand Slams) on the men’s professional circuit (ATP Tour). The WTA is a comparable organization established in 1974 or professional female players and works in a similar manner to the ATP.

The New Millennium: Issues and Challenges

The arrival of the new millennium brought both developments and opportunities to tennis. It also highlighted challenges that the sport had been facing for some time. It remains difficult to “grow the game’ (as the United States Tennis Association would say) partly because sport in today’s society is driven by its entertainment value. The future of every sport is tied to its ability to secure TV time and advertising dollars. The international flavor of professional tennis tends to decrease the lure of tennis to the American consumer because the presence of an American in the final of a tournament cannot be guaranteed. For example, the 2004 U.S. Open was the first American Grand Slam event, since 1988, to lack an American male finalist. Justine Henin-Hardenne and fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters met in the final of the 2003 U.S. Open. They had a national TV rating of 2.5 million. That was a 52 percent drop from 2002, when Serena Williams beat older sister Venus Williams. Fewer viewers mean less exposure, revenue, and, ultimately, interest in the game.

To generate more “team” interest and promote a regional association for these teams, Billie Jean King formed World Team Tennis. Developed nearly thirty years ago, ten teams competed in 2004 season. The franchises include Delaware, Hartford, Kansas City, New York (Buzz and Sportimes), Newport Beach, Philadelphia, Sacramento, St. Louis, and Springfield. Unlike traditional tennis tournaments, coaching is allowed, music is played, and men and women compose teams.

Tennis has provided an avenue for college scholarships, although opportunities to receive financial aid (i.e., scholarships) to play collegiate-level tennis are primarily restricted to American institutions. The number of NCAA Division I, II, and III female college players has increased from 6,599 in 1981-1982 to 8,420 in 2002-2003, whereas the number of male collegiate players has declined slightly from 7,340 to 7,312 during the same period. With the exception of Stan Smith (University of Southern California), Arthur Ashe (ULCA), Bob and Mike Bryan (two years at Stanford University), and Laura Granville (Stanford University), few collegiate players succeed in making the jump from college to the professional circuit. Controversy regarding the large number of foreign players recruited to play at American colleges is growing, with an estimated forty-eight out of the top one hundred females ranked by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association in 2000 hailing from countries other than the United States.

The considerable success of both current and former tennis players off court symbolizes many of the changes and issues that tennis is currently facing. Players have given back to the sport by supporting charity events (notably Andre Agassi’s Charitable Foundation), coaching, commentating, and even hosting chat shows. The phenomenal off-court success of current players, such as Venus and Serena Williams, reflects the increasingly changing attitudes and interests of female players away from the courts. The manner in which they have successfully parlayed their tennis success and notoriety into other ventures (e.g., modeling, acting, and interior designing) deserves honorable mention. The continual interaction between professional sports and entertainment, and whether it will interfere with players “giving back to the game,” will be interesting to observe in the future.

With an increase in the popularity of the sport, we have also seen an increase in injuries in the men’s and the women’s games. Undoubtedly, the pace and power of the game are contributing to the rise in injuries. Overuse injuries are also prevalent due to the early age at which players begin training and the number of hours spent doing so. Additionally, the increasing length of the season and pressure to play tournaments undeniably has an impact on injury rates. In order to preserve the players and the game, steps must be taken to prevent injuries.

In the 1990s much was made of how teenagers were dominating the women’s game. In 1998 six of the top sixteen players in the world were under twenty years of age, and three of those were ranked in the top ten. In May of 2004, there were no players under twenty in the top ten and only two players under twenty in the top twenty in the world. Tennis insiders would suggest that it is no coincidence that the two teenagers (Svetlana Kuznetsova, nineteen, and Maria Sharapova, seventeen) in the top-twenty rankings are from Russia. Tennis was introduced to an entirely new generation of young girls from Russia following the unprecedented success (albeit not entirely tennis related) of Anna Kournikova. Olympic success is still also a very powerful political tool. As evidence of the success of the Russian program, seven of the top twenty females in the world (December 2004) are Russian, and the winners of the 2004 Ladies French Open,Wimbledon, and U.S. Open (Singles) were Russian (Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova, and Elena Kuznetsova, respectively). Interestingly, the men’s game currently boasts players from seven different nationalities in the top ten alone.

Sexual orientation remains a taboo subject in men’s and women’s professional sport, but with the growth and development of the game, tennis has come to play a powerful role. Three world-ranked players have come out as lesbians, including two former world number one players, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. Homophobia still exists in tennis and on the tour, but tennis has become the “heroine” because no other sport nor as many fans have openly embraced lesbian athletes.

Drug abuse in the form of an anabolic steroid, nandrolone, has become an issue over recent years, particularly in the men’s game. In 1998 the Czechoslovakian Petr Korda tested positive for the steroid, as did seven professional players between 2002 and 2003. Interestingly, all of these players went unpunished because intentional use of the supplement could not be proven. Greg Rudeski is one of twenty-two players who have since tested positive for the steroid (and been excused) despite the ATP’s, one of the governing bodies for men’s professional tennis, instructing trainers not to distribute electrolyte tablets containing the drug. Players are tested throughout the competitive year, as well as three times out of competition (Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Andy Roddick were all tested at least twenty times in 2003). However, the ATP is being criticized considerably for allowing unexplainable drug use to run rife in today’s game.

Promoting Growth of the Game

While spectatorship is growing, both the men’s and women’s games continue to struggle to increase participation numbers. From 1988 to 1995, the number of people playing tennis dropped from 20.4 million to 17.8 million. During that same time frame, the number of women participating dropped from 9.1 million to 7.3 million. Since 1995, however, participation has started to escalate. In 2003, 24 million people played tennis in the United States.

To foster growth in the game, the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA,, along with national governing bodies in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, have developed programs such as Tennis Welcome Centers, Growing Tennis 50/50, and the Cartoon Network Tennis Club. The USTA has made efforts to diversify participation through grassroots tennis programs that attempt to introduce the game to kids in the inner cities. Worldwide (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Czech Republic, United States, New Zealand, Columbia, China, and Japan), tennis is a popular and prominent recreational and competitive sport for both men and women and has been an integral component of physical education curricula for children and youth for many years. Events such as “Tennis for Africa Day,” hosted annually in Rome, Italy, and Dublin, Ireland, have attracted top professional players, all participating to raise money and offer assistance to less-affluent countries on the African continent. The goal of such events is to disseminate the game of tennis to all and provide opportunities for nationwide involvement, especially among young people.